Early morning, & I am up to view some favorite blogs, look at the news & begin to formulate a post for my bloggy place on the Internet. I ran into the Husband, who had found his way out of our bed, as I started gathering items from our sizable collection of Edward Gorey materials. The Husband: “Hmmm… it must be Mr. Gorey’s birthday today!”
Edward Gorey- artist & author was the master of the comic macabre & has delighted me for my entire life. Indeed, the Husband & I discovered we were both big fans of Gorey’s work at the very start of our relationship 33 years ago.
To this day, I am enthralled & enchanted by his skilled spidery drawings & his stories poisonous & poetic stories of cursed children, fainting femmes, shadowy specters, threatening topiary & eccentric events in eerie Victorian gardens, woods & mansions.
Gorey’s works are witty, woeful, devious & delirious to the point of obsession. He was one of the most aptly named notables in American art & literature. In creating a large body of small works, he has made an indelible imprint on my outlook & taste.
Gorey wrote more than 100 books & illustrated more than 60 by other authors. He was also a designer of theater productions, including revues based on his own stories & Dracula with a young & very sexy Frank Langella, for which he did sets, costumes & lights. It was a Broadway hit that I saw twice in 1977. I was enthralled.
I saw him on occasion around Manhattan in the mid-1970s. He looked like one of his own creations, indeed his image lurks on the fringe of some of his drawings. Toweringly tall, with a wild white beard & hair, & a ring in each ear & on most of his fingers, when he lived in NYC, he went about town a raccoon coat. Gorey was known to be genial & gentle, & spoke in antiquated terms, using words like "jeepers", “swell”, & "zingy." He was known for his sweetness, good nature & fine spirit.
Gorey was passionate about the ballet, & for years he attended all performances of works by George Balanchine at the NYC Ballet. He invented stories about ballets & operas & designed sets, costumes & drop curtains for them. He lived for a long time in a cluttered UWS apartment, & after the ballet season he would retreat to his home on Cape Cod. After Balanchine's death in 1983, Gorey decided to leave NYC permanently.
In 1986 he moved into a 200 year old house that was said to have been haunted. In 1994, he told an interviewer of the strange disappearance of all the finials from his lamps along with his collection of tiny teddy bears.
Last week, my buddy- the Designer/Rapper Lil’Jake picked up, off the coffee table, our much loved copy of Elephant House: or The Home Of Edward Gorey, the engaging & engrossing picture book of Gorey’s Cape Cod home. The house was is a much larger version of Post Apocalyptic Bohemia, filled with esoteric objects like a toilet with a tabletop.He displayed none of his own art work. But, there was a definitive Gorey touch: poison ivy creeped inside through cracks in the wall.
Like me, Gorey packed his home with books, most of them Victorian, but he also watched soap operas & rented horror movies from the nearby video store He shared his life with a plethora of pussies. The many cats had the run of the house & furniture. If a stray showed up at his door, he would immediately welcome it in. After his death a friend moved into the house to take care of the many cats. Gorey liked to tell of the time that the cats were on a couch & suddenly: "everyone turned with eyes wide, as if someone, or something, unseen had entered the room.”
Edward St. John Gorey was born in Chicago on Feb. 22, 1925. Gorey: "I like to think of myself as a pale, pathetic, solitary child. But it was not true." He taught himself to read at 3, & by 5, he had read Dracula & Alice in Wonderland, a pair of books that were to have a profound effect on his life. He taught himself to draw & eventually took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. Gorey attended Harvard, where he majored in French literature & was roommates with my favorite poet- Frank O'Hara. He & O'Hara joined the Poets Theater in Cambridge, with Gorey as a designer, director & playwright.
After graduation he worked in the art department at Doubleday, staying late in the office to create his own books. When he could not find a publisher, he simply did it himself & founded- Fantod Press. Gorey sold his books directly to stores. His first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953.
His little books could be bizarre in the extreme. The Husband & I collect his alphabet books that chronicle the catastrophes of the doomed, deceived by fate. His earliest-The Gashlycrumb Tinies begins with: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs" & ends with "Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin."
Gorey used his stunning crosshatched line drawings, done with pen & ink to create his world of barren back roads, relinquished railway stations & storm struck formal gardens where the moon is menacing, & no sun shines. A tiny face peers through the curtained window of a big black automobile. Frightful beasts are perched on a precipice & upstairs in the attic. Death is by drowning, dismemberment or being dropped by the Devil into a flaming pit. The Beastly Baby is a bulbous blob carried away by an eagle & exploding in midair.
My admiration extends to his poetry & prose. Gorey invented his own geography with place names: Nether Postlude, Backwater Hall in Mortshire, between West Elbow & Penetralia, & the Cycle Cemetery near Dingy Cruet, Blots. He also enjoyed anagramming his own name, as Edward Gorey became Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde & D. Awdrey-Gore.
My first Gorey book was a gift from my parents for my 5th birthday in 1959-The Doubtful Guest. This small tome tells of a strange, hook-nosed creature, wearing a long scarf & tennis shoes, who shows up uninvited at a dreary mansion & soon becomes a permanent member of the family, peering up flues in the fireplace, tearing up books & sleepwalking through the house, & after 17 years he showed no intention of going away.
Once when he was asked why he wrote so much about murder & other forms of violence, Gorey answered: "Well, I don't know. I guess I'm interested in real life." With the general morbidness of the Victorian era, Gorey channels a 19th century aesthetic that allows him to get away with more of this than if his style were modern.
A favorite-The Hapless Child is the tragic story of a little orphaned girl who runs away from the mistresses at her cruel boarding school, only to be kidnapped & sold to a brute who makes her his slave. She escapes, on the brink of death, but is then run down & killed in the street by a wagon driven by her father, who’s back from the war, the rumors of his demise greatly exaggerated.
Gorey is probably most famous for animating the timeless intro to PBS’ Mystery!. He never had any children of his own, though he drew plenty of them. Looking at his work today as I prepared this post, I reread The Gashleycrumb Tinies, a deliciously morbid, alphabetical catalog of 26 children’s deaths. I wish to share to some of Gorey’s most striking & sometimes shocking drawings involving children, many creepier than I had even remembered:
There are a great many Gorey books available, all his work is still in print, & there are also collectibles: greeting cards, T-shirts, & calendars (indeed there is a 2011 calendar on my desk as a write this, a birthday gift from The Husband. If you wish to know his work, start with Amphigorey (1972), & it’s 2 sequels- Amphigorey Too (1977), & Amphigorey Also (1981).
In 1994, at age 69, soon after he was told he had prostate cancer: "I thought, 'Oh gee, why haven't I burst into total screaming hysterics? I'm the opposite of hypochondriacally. I'm not entirely enamored of the idea of living forever."